Notre Dame freshman DT Jerry Tillery ready to push

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Push shouldn’t be a problem.

While studying abroad in South Africa this summer, the bus transporting Notre Dame student-athletes from one town to the next unexpectedly broke down. Stranded, and with few options, it seemed the Irish were temporarily stuck.

That is, until Jerry Tillery got out and started pushing.

Tillery — a 6-foot-7, 305-pound freshman offensive tackle turned nose tackle — positioned himself behind the stubborn bus and summoned his considerable manpower.

And, in the unlikely duel between men and machine, the bus started moving from the force of Tillery and a few others.

Ten yards. Twenty yards. Thirty yards.

Given the bus’ unexpected demise, what hope do offensive linemen have?

“I’ve had some good freshmen, but the combination of size and athleticism and flexibility, and all those things that Jerry has, is a little bit different than some of the guys I’ve had,” Notre Dame defensive line coach Keith Gilmore said. “They’re normally a shorter, powerful, more stocky-type kid. I have not had a freshman with that sort of length and that sort of athleticism like Jerry.”

And come September, that combination of size and power will be put to frequent use. In the wake of senior nose tackle Jarron Jones’ season-ending MCL tear, Notre Dame will lean on Tillery — a true freshman — to likely start alongside senior standout Sheldon Day.

But in many ways, Tillery’s role hasn’t changed.

“Jarron was out all spring and Jerry was pretty much a starter,” Gilmore said. “He took all of the first team reps all spring long. It hasn’t really changed a lot in that respect.

“We had anticipated him playing at Texas, just like we anticipate him playing now. He’s on track to be a guy that’s a big contributor.”

Literally, and figuratively. It isn’t often that a freshman defensive lineman arrives on campus with both Tillery’s size and conditioning, ready to move mountains — and buses — en route to an immediate role. With that said, 6-1, 315-pound sophomore Daniel Cage will also push for available reps in Jones’ absence.

“Tillery’s been the guy who has really risen to the occasion,” Gilmore said. “Cage has risen up a little bit as well. But I think Jerry Tillery is really fired up.

“He has had a couple good days of practice, showing a lot of great effort, and I think he’s kind of smelling it a little bit.”

Having once shared Tillery’s direct track to the field, Day is convinced that the freshman will hold his own on Sept. 5 and beyond. The 6-2, 285-pound defensive tackle played in all 13 games as a true freshman on Notre Dame’s elite 2012 defense, registering 23 tackles with 3.5 tackles for loss and two sacks.

In Tillery, he sees glimpses of his past.

“I don’t really know how true freshmen (usually) think or act, because I came in early and played as a true freshman,” Day said. “They kind of threw a lot on my plate, so I had to accelerate faster. I feel like Jerry is ready to step up to the plate and get the job done.”

Another reason for Tillery’s accelerated production, beyond the evident size and athleticism, is the freshman’s understanding of not only himself, but his enemy. Having once been an elite offensive tackle prospect on the high school level, Tillery has the ability to think like an offensive lineman.

If he’s a step ahead, it’s because Tillery has already experienced life from both sides of the line.

“He knows a little bit about the blocking schemes and the things that are happening to him, so he’s able to anticipate where he should go, what he should do and those sorts of things,” Gilmore said. “It’s been a blessing for him and for me that he’s had that offensive line experience.”

Of course, the task of replacing Jones’ 40 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss from the 2014 season, while simultaneously solidifying a defensive line that could be key to Notre Dame’s success, would be overwhelming for most freshmen.

But Tillery isn’t most freshmen.

And if you don’t believe Gilmore, ask the bus.

“We all know that for a defensive lineman to play as a freshman, and come in and contribute at this level is pretty unusual,” Gilmore said. “Jerry Tillery is an exception to the rule.” 

So our bus broke down somewhere in Mpumalonga.

A photo posted by Jerry Tillery (@jerrytillery) on May 21, 2015 at 10:27am PDT

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Notre Dame’s Jerry Tillery, center, and Colin McGovern, right, during Notre Dame football practice on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2015, at Notre Dame in South Bend. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)